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PART IV: Lapis in Europe

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Lapis Lazuli ring stone: Athena with armor, Post-Classical Era. Gift of John Taylor Johnson, 1881. Housed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In classical Europe, members of the elite took great stock in stones imported from faraway territories. Just like in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, the possession of lapis, both in its raw and crafted form was seen to be a status symbol. In Roman times, one of the only acceptable forms of jewelry for men was to wear rings, which were worn on the middle finger. These rings were frequently set with precious stones such as lapis, as is seen with the ring stone displayed here. The stone was often engraved. These engraved rings aided communication between powerful figures, as engraved rings could be used as stamps to create raised impressions on another substrate, such as, perhaps, a wax seal. 

The engraving of these precious stones was a highly-prized art. Just as ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian people believed craftsmen to be a kind of divine figure, there was great interest in ancient Rome in the art of gem engraving, and skilled craftsmen were frequently the recipients of generous patronage. Just like the jewelry we have seen in ancient Egypt, lapis was frequently a medium on which to depict the gods, such as that of Athena depicted in the above. Roman emperors would use these engraved rings as personal insignia, and whatever figure they chose to have fashioned onto the ring was commonly a reflection of how they wanted themselves portrayed to the public. Julius Caesar, for instance, had the engraving of an armed Venus, of whom he imagined himself a descendant.  


As precious stones proliferated through the marketplace and material culture of Rome, many powerful figures found themselves in the possession of an ostentatious number of gemstones. As Jordi Gonzalez wrote in Gems of Ancient Rome: Pliny’s version, “The desire to gather all kinds of luxuries led people to amass large collections of gems…. Of great fame was the collection of king Mithridates whose treasure was inventoried after his defeat. The cataloging continued for thirty days and it was even counted … Julius Caesar was an eager collector; he is said to have deposited as many as six cabinets in the Temple of Venus Genetrix.” 

This habit of record-keeping among classical and post-classical European lapidaries (stone identification handbooks), became a systematic cataloging attempt of the most important gemstones to circulate through European antiquity. In these lapidaries, intellectuals ranging from Theophrastus in the 4th century BC to Agricola in the early modern era sought to create a systematic account of the large quantities of gemstones that ranged in their orbit. These lapidaries, beginning with that of Theophrastus, sought to categorize and describe the minerals that proliferated around them, and, through tracing the lineage of lapidaries through to Agricola, we may be able to trace the history of modern geology. (Agricola, after all, is understood to be the ‘father of modern mineralogy.’)


However, the line from Theophrastus to Agricola was nothing near linear. Although Theophrastus was a disciple of Aristotle (lauded to be the ‘father of empiricism') and thus took a very ‘scientific’ and systematic approach to classifying gemstones, the course of lapidaries took an astounding turn towards mysticism and medicine in the two thousand years between Theophrastus and Agricola, and many of the writing surrounding lapis in this interim seems to be directly imported from the Mesopotamian and Egyptian mysticism. 


But although the text surrounding the gemstones fluctuated wildly over the centuries, one mineral remained constant: lapis lazuli. The number of cataloged gemstones ranged from 4000 (in the case of Pliny the Elder) to 16 (in the case of Agricola). Lapis, however, is featured in each and every one of these, no matter how many gemstones were cataloged. The descriptions and impressions surrounding lapis, therefore, are the perfect vehicle through which to trace the history of scientific (and, indeed, pseudoscientific) thought surrounding mineralogy from the classical through to the early Modern Era. Through this knowledge regarding the significance of lapis, we are able to use lapis as a focal piece, a sample or lens through which to examine the multi-millennial struggle to catalog and describe magic and myth from the stone, by tracing the most foundational lapidaries of the ancient through the early modern world. These lapidaries, for the most part, cross-pollinated, and it can be assumed that most subsequent writers had extensively read the works of their predecessors. It can also be assumed that they are immersed enough in their popular culture to have an at least partial understanding of the mythic charge of precious stones throughout antiquity. 

Theophrastus, On Stones

Theophrastus was perhaps the first thinker to approach cataloging rocks from a detached, empirical approach. He followed in the tradition of Aristotle, whose approach to the natural world was founded on reason and rational thought; based on the physical properties of rocks rather than any divine attributes attached to them. As is written in the preface to Agricola’s De Natura Fossilium in 1546, translated for the Mineralogical society of America by geologists Mark Chance Bandy and Jean A. Bandy:


“Without being a purely descriptive or a purely philosophical work, the treatise seems to be an attempt to classify mineral substances on the basis of Aristotelian principles…. The treatise represents, so far as we know, the first attempt to study mineral substances in a systematic way…. From a scientific standpoint this little treatise is much better than the other ancient and medieval works on minerals that are known to us. Pliny, for example, though he treats the subject far more extensively, does so in a much less critical and systematic fashion. The comparative freedom of the treatise On Stones from fable and magic should be especially noted, for many of the works in this field written centuries later, particularly the medieval lapidaries, dwell largely upon the fancied magical or curative powers of precious stones. In fact, for almost two thousand years this treatise by Theophrastus remained the most rational and systematic attempt at a study of mineral substances.” 


Indeed, Theophrastus describes lapis based solely on aesthetic value, only noting that it is a blue stone “speckled with gold.” However, that does not mean that Theophrastus’ On Stones is free of myth and fable. Theophrastus immediately proceeds to talk of the emerald, which has “certain powers… [it is] good for the eyes. But it is rare and of small size, unless we are to believe the records about the Egyptian kings; for it is said that among the gifts from the king of the Babylonians a smaragdos [emerald] was once sent to them which was six feet in length and four and a half feet in width, and that four such stones are deposited as an offering in the obelisk of Zeus.”


Agricola’s De Natura Fossilium became a source for lapidaries until the early renaissance. But although lapis is stripped of magical powers in this book, it is obvious that he is still intimately aware of the beliefs and rituals of other ancient peoples surrounding the stones, and that these divine connections were just a sentence away. 

Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historiae

Lapis also appears in Pliny the Elder’s encyclopedic work of description and categorization: Natural History. This titanic work of categorization was written in 37 volumes, the last two of which were published posthumously by Pliny’s son upon his death in 79 AD following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Lapis is never explicitly mentioned in Natural History, although scholars later came to believe that it is implicit in his description of two separate stones: Cyanos and Sapphiros. In the preface to the section on precious gems, Pliny writes, 


We will now proceed to speak of the various kinds of precious stones, the existence of which is generally admitted, beginning with those which are the most highly esteemed. Nor shall we content ourselves with doing this only; but, with the view of consulting the general welfare of mankind, we shall also refute the infamous lies that have been promulgated by the magicians: for it is with reference to their fabulous stories, stepping, under the most alluring guise of ascertaining remedial virtues, beyond all bounds, and entering the region of the marvellous. 


Indeed, the description of both cyanos and sapphiros are, for the most part, drained of magic and fable. 


Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae

Isidore of Seville, in the words of the 19th century scholar Montalembert, was “the last scholar of the ancient world.” His fame after his death is based on his Etymologiae, the etymological encyclopedia that assembled scraps and extracts from the ancient world that would have otherwise have been lost. Isidore, unlike his predecessors, was a Christian scholar; that said, his Etymologiae was his attempt to create a summa of universal knowledge from a Christian perspective. One scholar speaks of the book: “all secular knowledge that was of use to the Christian scholar had been winnowed out and contained in one handy volume; the scholar need search no further.” He is also known to have popularized encyclopedic writing in the middle ages, with continued popularity and pull into the renaissance. In his Etymologiae, Isidore calls upon divine knowledge to describe the world around him. “They are called precious stones because they are valued dearly, or because they can be distinguished from base stones, or because they are rare--for everything that is rare is called great and precious, as may be read in the book of Samuel (cf. I Kings 3:1 Vulgate): “And the word of the Lord was precious in Israel”; that is, it was rare.” However, like Pliny, he seems to only describe lapis in terms of its physical attributes: the sapphire (sapphirus) is blue with purple, possessing scattered gold flecks; the finest sapphires are found among the Medes, although sapphires are nowhere truly clear” 


Bishop of Rennes, De Lapidibus

In the medieval ages, however, beliefs of the mystical powers of gemstones, surged, and many lapidaries were in fact used as a kind of medicinal textbook. The Bishop of Rennes is perhaps the most notable example of this schism, whose treatise De Lapidibus is a deep-dive into the medicinal, therapeutic, and magical properties of 60 different jewels. He speaks of lapis: 


Fine is the appearance of lapis lazuli – so very suitable for kings’ fingers,

Splendid its glitter, so much like the unsullied heavens, Inferior to none in miraculous powers and charm.

It is commonly called the stone of Syrtis

For around the Gulf of Sirta, mixed with Libyan sands, Driven about by waves, in seething waters, it is found. But the best stone is the one that central Asia produces. Despite its documented opacity,

Powerful nature has enriched it with so much beauty,

That it is rightly regarded as the sublime gem of all gems; For it keeps the body vigorous and the limbs healthy.

He who carries it cannot be injured by any crime.

He survives hatred, dread troubles him not.

This stone, so they say, releases the shackled from prison, Unfastens closed doors and loosens applied bonds,

And appeases God who becomes well disposed to one’s prayers.

It is said to be good for restoring harmony.

The art of divination esteems this gem more than mortal remains,

As, through it, the divine answers can be obtained.

This stone heals diseases of the body.

One can rely on it to relieve internal inflammation,

It limits sweating in excessive heat.

Ground up with milk, applied as ointment, it heals sores, It recovers dirt from the eyes and banishes headaches; Likewise it cures speech disorders.

But he who carries it about is bidden to be a most upright person.


Just like with the ancient Egyptians, note how lapis takes a place at the interstice of good and evil, as exemplified by the following line: ‘it is said to be good for restoring harmony.’ Lapis, also appears at the interface of the living and the dead, recalled in the following line: ‘the art of divination esteems this gem more than mortal remains.’ One scholar, Beckman, writes of this proposed power of the stone: “Marbod’s claims for the lapis lazuli were quite extraordinary, and surely must have raised eyebrows, if not the ire, of the church hierarchy. To say that its agency mollifies god and results in prayers being answered favorably is extreme theology to say the least, even allowing for gems to be divinely impregnated material.”


Perhaps one reason for the resurgence of medicinal books on gemstones was due to the popularity of Thomas Aquinas, who sought to synthesize Aristotle’s empirical observation with Christian values. According to scholar Nicola Harris, Aquinas spread the belief that the natural world had been crafted by God for the benefit of the human race, which led medieval Christians to expect to find medicinal benefits in all of earth’s materials, including precious gems. These lapidaries portrayed the most common method of medicinal application as on one’s skin in the form of a necklace or open-backed ring, as would have likely been the case with the Athena-inspired ring stone. Others, as mentioned above, were consumed in ground form. 


Agricola, De Natura Fossilium

Alas, we have arrived at Agricola, the German humanist scholar, whose resurrection of the secular, empirical views of science is encapsulated in his magnum opus De Natura Fossilium (1546) He classifies the stones based empirical observation on their color and texture, as well as any other physical attributes. However, strangely, sublimely, he writes of lapis: “Some minerals rich in this peculiar essence counteract poisons, some cure disease. Others, endowed by Nature with the power of counteracting poisons cure people ill with the plague. . . Others counteract a single poison as does lapis-lazuli which, having been drunk, counteracts the sting of a scorpion.” Later, however, he scorns these fabelistic practices:  “I shall say nothing concerning the properties which the Persian scholars have attributed to stones and gems. They, and the Arabs who have copied them, have treated the natures and causes of things with such a superficiality and vagueness as to cause one to regard them as of little value as I shall explain at greater length elsewhere.”


In describing lapis, Agricola seems to walk the line between the physical and the metaphysical: 


“Sapphirus (lapis-lazuli) and cyanus (sapphire) are dark blue, hence the name of the latter gem (draws, a dark blue substance). Lapis-lazuli is enlivened by small golden points. Both gems are as blue as the heavens but lapis-lazuli especially resembles the heavens because of the golden points which represent the stars.” In fact, it seems like the physicality of lapis, in that it resembles nothing closer than the stars that render it such a difficult object. 


Indeed, despite Agricola’s insistence against the “superficiality” of myths and fables attached to the stone, the medicinal and divine properties of lapis seems to return with a vengeance. As Don Emerson writes, in Lapis lazuli, the most beautiful rock in the world, “Lapis (after washing 50 times) was mentioned by Burton (1628) as a purging remedy for melancholy, but whether it should have been used as a pill, powder, or potion was not stated. Kircher (1678) the Jesuit polymath, in a comprehensive book on pre-modern gemmology, listed powers peculiar to lapis such as curing fever, invigorating vision, inducing sleep, and relieving arthritis.”


Lapis additionally makes a remarkable appearance in Ole Worm’s Wormanarium. In his catalog of his Cabinet of Wonders, Worm writes how lapis “possesses the power of striking back, of ulcerating, of having little to corrode…. It is therefore valid against all melancholic affections… I have tried the stone of Lazulus, and have always profited it.” As a physician, Ole Worm may have  prescribed these cures to his patients, thus proliferating the beliefs associated with the power of the stone far into the early modern era.

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Detail from Ole Worm’s Wormanarium, Housed at Dartmouth College’s Rauner Rare Manuscript Library. 

Selected Works Cited


Beckmann, J. 1799, Marbodi liber lapidum seu de gemmis, J.C. Dieterich, Gottingen. [Marbod’s book of stones and on gems, lines 103-128, lapis].


Don Emerson (2015) Lapis Lazuli – the Most Beautiful Rock in the World, Preview, 2015:179, 63-73, DOI: 10.1071/PVv2015n179p63.


Erin Harris, Nichola (May 2009). "The Idea of Lapidary Medicine: Its Circulation and Practical Applications in Medieval and Early Modern England"


González, Jordi Pérez. “Gems in Ancient Rome: Pliny's Version.” SCRIPTA CLASSICA ISRAELICA, 2019.

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